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Kenyan Women Farmers Protest Losing Their Land in the Name of Progress

When the government bought their land to make way for a new railway line, the residents of Kangawa village were promised compensation. Two years on, the women of the village are staging a sit-in protest, demanding fair pay for the loss of their land and livelihoods.

Written by Naipanoi Lepapa Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Since late July, women farmers have been protesting at the construction site for a new train station in Kangawa village, Kenya. They are demanding the compensation they were promised when the government bought their land to make way for the new railway line.Naiponai Lepapa

KAJIADO COUNTY, Kenya – For most of her life, Mary Mwihaki lived on the same piece of land in Kangawa village, keeping cattle and goats and making $70 a month selling fruits and vegetables to her neighbors. Today, she is being forced from her land, left with no animals and no way to make money. So she spends her days sitting in a blue plastic chair on a construction site parking lot, protesting against the new railway that she says took everything from her.“I am jobless now,” Mwihaki, 60, says. “I don’t have any education and I can’t find any work because I am old. I don’t have money or food.”

Since July 29, Mwihaki and 25 other women have been staging a sit-in protest at one of the construction sites for the new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). Every day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., they gather at the site, trying to block the work being done by the contractor, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). The men in their communities join them at night. The protesters say they are still waiting for the compensation they were promised in 2016, when the government bought their land to make way for the railway.

“We are tired of poverty and hunger. We chased the Chinese workers away three weeks ago and we shall allow them back only when we are fully paid.”

Mwihaki was told she would receive more than 30 million Kenyan shillings ($297,800) when the National Land Commission (NLC) bought her land in Kangawa village, 19.2 miles (30.9km) southeast of Nairobi, so it could be turned into the Ngong railway station, part of a 75-mile (120km) line being built between Nairobi and Naivasha. She says so far she has received only 250,000 shillings ($2,480).

The project has displaced more than 1,000 residents of Kajiado County. A mother of seven, Mwihaki has refused to move and is currently sharing a plot of land with the railway station. She says she has nowhere else to go and is struggling to make ends meet. Eight months ago, she had to sell her eight cows and 10 goats at a loss.

Mwihaki is among the 74 percent of Kenyans who live in rural areas and the more than 80 percent who derive their livelihoods from farming and livestock. She is also in the minority of Kenyan women who own land and property, which helps them get access to credit and gives them economic power and security that few women in the country enjoy. Now, her power and security are gone.

“We are tired of poverty and hunger,” Mwihaki says. “We chased the Chinese workers away three weeks ago and we shall allow them back only when we are fully paid. See, they have completed 80 percent of the station. They will move on then, but what about us?”

The Victims of Mega-Projects

The Chinese-financed SGR is one of several mega-projects Kenya has launched in its quest to become an industrialized middle-income country as envisioned in its development plan, Vision 2030. Expected to boost the country’s GDP by 1.5 percent annually, the railway project calls for compulsory acquisition, a provision in the constitution that allows the government to acquire rights to private land without the consent of its owner in order to benefit society as a whole.

“The constitution of Kenya … states that compulsory acquisition should only be done for public good and a prompt payment in full of the just compensation is done to the person or corporation,” land administration expert Justus Wambayi says.

But compensation payments to the residents affected by the SGR project have been delayed for years. And for women who rely on their land for a home and livelihood, the wait can be devastating.

Another protester at the Ngong train station construction site, 70-year-old Beatrice Wacuka, left her home months ago after CRBC covered her young crops with soil and uprooted her water pipes. Tremors from the construction had caused cracks to appear in the walls of her house.

She accepted the small facilitation fee of 200,000 shillings ($1,980) offered by the government and moved out to a rental home. The place she lives in now is the second house she has rented since being made to move. The first house was uncomfortable for her 40-year-old son, who suffers from schizophrenia, and Wacuka is struggling to look after him properly.

“My arthritis and my son’s condition require money, which I lack. The other day my son missed his medication and reported me to the police. He told them I was barring him from going home. I think he forgot we had lost our land and home,” she says. “Despite selling some of my household goods, I struggle to survive.”

The project is making it harder for many women to do their work as caregivers to their children, husbands and elderly relatives.

“People just signed contracts and most of them do not understand the implications. When I see my people suffer this much, I feel sad, but I cannot help them as I was not involved in the process.”

Village residents say a number of private water boreholes used by small farmers to grow vegetables have run dry as a result of deeper boreholes dug for the construction. Uncertainty over the project and compensation has also contributed to food shortages, as many of the affected families did not plant crops because they were either asked not to by CRBC or had expected to have moved somewhere else after their land was taken by the government.

All of this means there has been an increase in petty theft in the area, especially poultry theft, residents say.

Land expert Wambayi says in cases of compulsory acquisition there is a need to balance the demand for land with the protection of the rights of affected people. It is clear, he says, that such policies were not followed for the SGR project.

“Everybody has the right to own property anywhere in Kenya according to the bill of rights. The NLC should have made sure the people they were displacing were compensated fairly. But instead of improving their livelihoods, they infringed on their rights and have left them vulnerable to poverty,” he says.

Goodwin Sakwa, an environment and social safeguards consultant, says one mistake the government made during the compensation process was not consulting the community.

“Problems are now coming up because the affected people were not vigorously involved to help them understand the impacts of the project and their rights and responsibilities,” he says, adding that Kenya’s Public Participation Bill requires that the affected people be made aware of relevant issues and educated through forums and the use of all local media channels.

The chief of Kangawa, who asked not to be named, says there was no consultative or awareness-raising process before the railway project began.

“People just signed contracts and most of them do not understand the implications. When I see my people suffer this much, I feel sad, but I cannot help them as I was not involved in the process, so I do not know much, just like them.”

NLC vice-chair Abigael Mbagaya disputes the complaints, saying all the proper steps were followed.

“I even went to the site and talked to people. We followed the right procedure,” she says.

Taking Action, Seeing Results

The Treasury allocated 74.7 billion shillings ($741 million) for the SGR in this financial year, 5.2 billion shillings ($51 million) of which is earmarked for compensation, according to Mbagaya.

Mother of seven Mary Mwihaki used to raise cattle and goats and made $70 a month running her grocery stall. Since her land was taken over to make way for the SGR line, she has no land, no animals and no way to make money. (Naiponai Lepapa)

The SGR project, which is currently in phase 2, has long been plagued by corruption. A 2014 internal audit by the Kenya Railways Corporation revealed the cause of compensation delays during phase 1 to be massive looting and unethical practices within the NLC. On August 11, 2018, a dozen commissioners were arrested by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission for compensation fraud relating to the SGR worth 2.8 billion shillings ($27.7 million)Addressing the compensation delays recently, NLC’s Mbagaya says the first batch of money has been released and more residents will start receiving their money soon.

But the women protesting the railway are tired of waiting. And their action is beginning to show results. Their protest has already halted progress on the construction of the Ngong railway station and seen the reinstallation of their piped water. So far, 10 SGR sites have been blocked by Kajiado residents demanding full compensation for their land and their homes.

According to the Oxfam report “Promises, Power and Poverty,” a boost in investment across Africa is negatively affecting women’s land-use options and cutting off their income-generating opportunities while making it harder for them to grow and access food and take care of their families. “Women’s voices and perspective need to be considered urgently if the robust rural economy and food for all are to be guaranteed,” the report says.

And that is exactly what the women of Kangawa, relentless in their struggle, are trying to achieve.

“I will sit here day and night if necessary,” Mwihaki vows. “I will move only when I see money in my bank account.”

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